Friday, December 2

Bag designer Clare Vivier isn’t afraid of getting political

Some handbags make a fashion statement; Clare Vivier’s make a political one.

Vivier, 51, is the founder of Clare V., a company that she’s spent the last 14 years building into a profitable business with 12 stores, a clothing line, and a cult following. While the brand is known for its French-inspired fanny packs and totes, it also stands out for advocating for progressive causes, from gun control to voting rights to reproductive justice. At a time when the country is more polarized than ever and PR consultants advise brands to stay quiet on contentious topics, Vivier’s approach requires both bravery and business savvy.

[Photo: Clare V.]

With the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe vs Wade, Vivier is launching a t-shirt today emblazoned with “Égalité pour les femmes” (French for “equality for women”) that will raise funds for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a nonprofit defending abortion. And as Congress attempts to pass gun control legislation in the wake of the Uvalde shooting, the brand is selling a shirt that says, “Ça suffit!” (“enough!”) in support of Everytown for Gun Safety. Each time the company supports a cause vocally on social media it leads to backlash. But while some customers have chosen to stop buying Clare V products because of this advocacy, sales continue to go up —by around 70% compared to last year. “I don’t like alienating people,” she says. “But I feel like we’re on the right side of history.”

‘It wasn’t acceptable for me to have a purely capitalistic business’

Vivier’s parents paved her path to activism. Her father grew up in Mexico and came to the U.S. on a baseball scholarship; later, he became a professor of Law and Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota and was very involved in the civil rights movement in the ’60s. He met his wife in junior high, but they didn’t date until he was in graduate school. “My mother is of white, European descent, and her parents didn’t love the fact that she was dating someone who was Mexican,” she says. “As a mixed race child growing up in America, I experienced all of the animosity that can be stirred up.”

[Photo: Clare V.]

Vivier’s parents raised their six children in a progressive community in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they attended protests and talked about politics at the dinner table. The kids attended a school where social justice was core to the curriculum. “[Our parents] always instilled in us the importance of civic responsibility,” she says. “It was clear that we were here to serve other people.”

[Photo: Clare V.]

Vivier didn’t plan to become a designer. She studied English at the University of San Francisco and became a journalist, marrying Frenchman Thierry Vivier in 2002, after which she spent time in both France and the U.S. writing. In her spare time, though, she loved to sew. In the early 2000s, it was hard to find an attractive, functional computer bag, so she designed an oversized envelope clutch out of padded cotton to carry her laptop to work. Friends soon asked if she could make them one, and Vivier began to seriously consider what it would take to start a new career.

[Photo: Clare V.]

She didn’t have the equipment to sew thicker materials like leather and canvas, and money was tight. She and Theirry had just moved back to the Bay Area and had a newborn son, so she couldn’t justify spending money on a better sewing machine. That’s when fate intervened. When she was walking around Oakland, she stumbled across four $100 bills. “There was nobody around,” she says. “I was looking for someone to return it to, but there was no one in sight. So I decided to take it as a sign that I should buy a sewing machine.”

Vivier started prototyping bags inspired by the classic, well-crafted French aesthetic that she admired from her time in Paris. Boutique orders came in for 50 bags at a time, and two years later, she realized that she needed to increase production capabilities. So she and her family moved to Los Angeles, and she found a family-run factory in Burbank, which she still uses today.

In 2008, Vivier launched the Clare V website, and the brand took off immediately. Celebrities like Katie Holmes and Rashida Jones began carrying her bags. (Bags start at $150; most cost around $300, which is on par with brands like Rebecca Minkoff and Kate Spade.) The company, which Vivier bootstrapped, has been profitable from the start, except for a brief period in 2020 when sales declined due to the pandemic. But even as the brand thrived, Vivier wanted to do right by her parents, who expected their children to help solve some of the world’s problems. “It wasn’t acceptable for me to have a business that was purely capitalistic,” she says. “The question from the start was how was I going to use this business to give back.”

The Inevitable Backlash

Seven years into running the business, Vivier decided to shift the brand toward activism. In 2015, she partnered with Christy Turlington’s charity, Every Mother Counts, which works to prevent maternal mortality around the world; she released a line of clothing in which 30% of the sales price went to the organization. But over time, she was eager to get involved in more contentious issues. During the Trump presidency, when progressive activists talked about building a resistance, Clare V. released a shirt and bandana saying, “Vive La Resistance,” donating proceeds to Planned Parenthood. In 2018, after the Parkland shooting, the brand advocated for gun control, donating to Everytown For Gun Safety.

By the end of 2022, Vivier expects the company to have raised half a million dollars for these causes since she first got involved. But more than money, Vivier believes she’s helping draw attention to these issues.

[Photo: Clare V.]

“It makes sense for brands to align themselves with nonprofits who are experts at causing change on the ground,” says Afdhel Aziz, co-author of Good is The New Cool, and founder of Conspiracy of Love, a consultancy for purpose-driven brands. “Brands can use the power of advertising to de-stigmatize a topic, which can influence culture in profound ways.”

But with each of these moments of advocacy, Clare V. experienced backlash. On social media, some followers would applaud the activism while others angrily said they would boycott the brand. This gave Vivier pause. She was concerned about losing business, primarily because so many people now depended on her to make a living. She remembers her father visiting the opening of her second store in 2015, shortly before he passed away, and being thrilled by how she was creating work. “One of the greatest takeaways from my dad is that my business was in my own community in Los Angeles,” she recalls. “I [knew I] must think of my employees. ”

This is a struggle that many companies face. In the wake of a leaked Supreme Court document suggesting that Roe vs Wade might be overturned, some publicists quietly advised their clients to stay away from the issue of abortion. In a statement, PR firm Zeno told clients: “…do not respond to questions about where your company stands on this issue.”

Many companies appear to be taking this advice. Fast Company published a series of stories about the business case for abortion access, and reached out to more than 200 companies; only 15 were willing to engage about their policies and stance on abortion. As I reported earlier this week, women’s health startup Stix reached out to dozens of companies to donate to a fund that will provide the morning after pill for free, and only two, Universal Standard and Mara Hoffman, were willing to do so.

It’s easier for smaller companies and startups to take a stand on controversial topics, Aziz points out. “Smaller brands with a very clear clientele are better able to wade into the fray,” he says. “It’s harder for mass market brands whose customers span the political spectrum.”

[Photo: Clare V.]

Vivier believes that being small frees her to speak up. As Roe hangs in the balance, she is vocal about her support of abortion access, including the new shirt in support of the Center for Reproductive Rights. One one level it’s personal: Her brand carries her name, so she thinks it’s important to be true to her values and stand up for what she believes. But she has also found that some customers become even more loyal, even as others choose to stay away. “It is meaningful to some people to buy things from brands they agree with,” she says. “And we want to be a brand that isn’t just posing, but is taking a stand and standing behind our initiatives.” And, surprisingly, even people who don’t share her beliefs often stick around. “We are complex beings,” she says. “We might love a conservative neighbor or family member, even though we don’t share the same views. I think it’s the same way with brands.”

Part of the reason Vivier is able to do this is because she has relative autonomy over her brand. Clare V. is privately owned, and Vivier doesn’t have any venture funding. In 2012, she took a minority investment from the fashion designer Steven Alan and Bedrock Manufacturing (which owns Shinola and Filson) in order to open stores; she says she chose these investors because they supported her values. “We’re profitable, and our growth is slow and organic,” she says. “I’m comfortable with that because it means I have control over what the brand represents.”

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